Quinn and Sam had been living in a tent at the encampment in Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, also known as “Bruce Lee City,” for three weeks when they were forced to clear out their possessions as dozens of police, dressed in riot gear, arrived to enforce an eviction.
In June, the young couple, who asked that their last names be omitted for privacy reasons, were told to pack up everything they own in 10 minutes or face a potentially violent confrontation with police. Terrified by the threat of aggression, they complied, gathering their things and vacating the park as quickly as possible.
Many residents and advocates chose to stay behind, and those who remained were pepper sprayed and encircled with metal fencing by officers on horseback.
Two months later, Quinn and Sam found themselves sleeping on the floor of a family member’s basement apartment. They say the eviction cut them off from resources, dispersed their community, and made their lives even more difficult.
“I started feeling like I finally found a sense of community because I’d been struggling so long and so hard to get us a place, to just finally have a place where I could relax,” Sam told VICE World News. “I was being fed well, I was meeting a lot of people that shared a lot of my similar interests, to just have the city go, ‘You know what? No, you’re vermin, get out.’”
Though small homeless encampments have long existed in Toronto, the city’s homelessness crisis was put on display during the pandemic as homeless residents flocked to popular parks in an effort to avoid the COVID-19-riddled, ever-crowded shelter system.
Aside from a few minor attempts to dismantle these growing communities in 2020, the encampments were largely left alone for more than a year. Right To Housing TO estimates between 1,000 and 2,000 residents were living in encampments throughout Toronto in the early months of the pandemic.
This summer, however, the city significantly ramped up its efforts to crack down on encampments. Two more major evictions were held following the Bellwoods clearing—first at Alexandra Park and then at Lamport Stadium park—after the city issued trespass notices on July 12.
The eviction at Lamport on July 21 resulted in 26 arrests. Footage from the day shows police officers shoving, pepper spraying, and hitting protesters—all for an encampment sheltering fewer than 20 residents.
Earlier this month, Toronto police advised the public of three more arrests in connection with the eviction, asking for help in identifying eight additional people involved in the protest.
The clearing of these parks “accomplished almost nothing,” said homelessness advocate Jennifer Evans, who helped a few individuals find temporary accommodations in the aftermath of the evictions. She said many of the dozens of residents who were evicted from parks in recent months ended up moving to other, more isolated encampments throughout the city, such as underneath the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto’s elevated highway—proving that the eviction approach shuffles people around while doing little to actually address the root problem.
According to the City of Toronto, of the estimated 20-25 encampment residents present at Trinity Bellwoods on the day of the eviction, 10 people entered the shelter system but have not moved to permanent housing, and eight of the 10 people remain in the system as of Sept. 8. At Alexandra Park, 10 people entered the shelter system with seven of them still there, while at least 15 others left the park of their own accord. And at Lamport, the most heavy-handed of the evictions to date, just two of the 11 encampment occupants accepted a referral to a shelter or hotel program with only one remaining.
In total, according to recent data released by the city, these three evictions cost the city just under $2 million, or approximately $33,000 per person.
Some of the displaced residents who did not accept shelter referrals still haven’t been located by community members who are concerned for their health and safety.
“Most of the people evicted have scattered to other parks but without the resources they had before the police came,” said Jennifer Jewell, a former Dufferin Grove encampment resident who attended the Lamport eviction out of solidarity. “We are still unable to locate some of them. People have lost their homes, food, medical supplies, and access to community. They’re scared.”
Jewell said she preferred living in the park encampment to the hotel shelter where she currently stays, but being disabled and not having access to washrooms and showers left her no choice but to accept an offer for indoor shelter.
Though encampment residents were offered indoor shelter spaces prior to the evictions, many say they prefer the community atmosphere and freedom and safety of living in parks to the city’s overcrowded shelter system, especially as shelters have seen COVID-19 outbreaks and an increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic.
“I’ve been in and out of the shelter system since I was 12 years old,” Sam said. “I’ve been sexually assaulted (there) and I don’t want to go back to a place that’s not going to care.”
Of the parks that received trespass notices in July, the encampment at Moss Park—an area just east of Toronto’s downtown core that has a large transient population compared to the other parks—is now the only one left standing. There is no word on when the city will choose to carry out an eviction there, or why it hasn’t yet.
In a statement, the city said, “The decision on when to enforce a trespass is about health and safety risks,” citing COVID-19 and fire hazards, though it did not specify the threshold for deciding when to evict.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has defended the recent heavy-handed encampment evictions by saying the city’s shelter system provides a “pathway to permanent housing,” but, as the Toronto Star recently reported, only 9 percent of former encampment residents who entered the system during the pandemic have moved into temporary or permanent homes.
That’s partly because the housing supply isn’t there.
The city does have plans to build new affordable housing in an effort to clear its 78,177-person social housing waitlist, such as the HousingTO Action Plan that aims to create 40,000 new affordable rental homes, of which 18,000 would be for people experiencing homelessness, by 2030. And there are currently 82 projects in the city’s affordable rental development pipeline, which will result in 10,676 new affordable rental homes.
But these plans, among others, require funding—much of which has yet to be secured.
In the meantime, Toronto’s homelessness crisis continues to grow, and those bearing the brunt of it say it would be within everybody’s best interest for the city to work collaboratively with homeless residents on interim solutions that don’t include extreme force or violence.
A former Trinity Bellwoods encampment resident who goes by the name of Gru said he and other homeless folks are tired of having decisions made for them without having the opportunity to express their needs. If the city truly wants to help its unhoused residents, he said, it should start by bringing in people who have experienced homelessness firsthand.
“Put us on the table. The cops are already there; the fire department is already there. Everybody else is already there,” Gru said. “It helps to humanize encampment residents a little bit to have people on the table saying, ‘Hey, if you go in with with pepper spray and batons, then all you’re doing is moving the problem around.’”
Asked if the city has any plans to find solutions with those experiencing homelessness, a spokesperson referenced its Streets to Homes outreach program. Streets to Homes teams and partner agencies do routine outreach to connect with those living on the streets and in encampments, usually to offer up shelter spaces or to help them access nearby services.
But Gru said this is not the same thing as having actual homeless individuals in the room when making policy decisions that directly affect them.
He said the city’s current strategy assumes that staff and officials already know what’s best for the homeless and must convince residents to cooperate, rather than empowering people to have agency over their own lives.
“A dialogue needs to be opened between us and the City of Toronto,” Jewell said. “They need to stop criminalizing us; they need to listen.”
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Correction: A previous version of this story said Jennifer Jewell lived in the Trinity Bellwoods encampment. She, in fact, lived in the Dufferin Grove encampment.